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Posted at 3:37 PM ET, 01/28/2011

The Post's 'totally hip' book reviews

By Andy Alexander

Producing humorous videos for news Web sites isn’t easy. Remember “Mouthpiece Theater,” the satirical series featuring Post staffers Dana Milbank and Chris Cillizza that was nixed after being ridiculed as sophomoric? Or the widely panned Post-produced mix of YouTube videos showing bears appearing to dance to music? Instead of making people smile, the so-called “Dancing Bear” video was so gimmicky it made them groan.

But one that I think hits the mark can be found in an unlikely place -- the Web site’s Book World section. Fiction editor Ron Charles, quiet and mild-mannered in real life, has developed a video persona as The Post’s “Totally Hip Video Book Reviewer.” The character Charles has created is an exaggeration of the stereotypical eccentric, erudite book critic. The “Totally Hip” reviewer comes across as a mix of intellectual and manic, at times living a secret life of fantasy.

In one he is seen in over-dramatized scenes with a female love interest on the steps of the Library of Congress. It’s a spoof perfume commercial for “Spine,” a fictitious “new fragrance from the Library of Congress.” (A voiceover at the end whispers “The scent of reading.”)

In another Charles is standing in front of the White House, wearing stars and stripes briefs, a patriotic hat and draped with an American flag, talking about a Peter Carey novel patterned on Alexis de Toqueville’s journey to America. “There was a huge crowd gathered around us” as he was being videotaped, he recalled. “If you weren’t in character, you’d die of humiliation doing something like that.”

What is noteworthy about the “Totally Hip” videos is that they are conceived, produced, taped and edited almost entirely by Charles and his wife, Dawn, an English teacher at Bethesda-Chevy Chase High School. Occasionally, their teenage daughter makes a cameo, and some friends play parts. But participation by The Post is limited to several editors reviewing the final cut and offering suggestions. The videos are professional, polished and uproarously funny.

And they seem to be gaining a following. Steven King, a Post video editor, said the latest “Totally Hip” episodes have each been viewed between 10,000 and 20,000 times. “The series shows promise for future growth,” he said.

For Charles and his wife, it appears a labor of love. “It takes way too much time,” he said. “We work every night on the script. Saturday morning, my wife and I get up early and work all day long.” After a break for dinner, the editing begins and can continue well past midnight. Additional sound editing often takes place Sunday. Post editors review it Monday, sometimes asking for changes.

Charles isn’t paid extra for the work, an issue that was slipped into one of his episodes. In one scene, where he is offering book commentary in the family laundry room, his exasperated wife turns on him: “What good have your videos done for us, anyway? How much money have you made from them? Huh? Tell me?” The “Totally Hip” husband responds in humiliation: “I would prefer not to.”

In reality, Charles told me, “I feel very well compensated here at The Post, so it’s not an issue.”

Charles, a St. Louis native with an undergraduate degree from Principia College and an advanced degree from Washington University, has no formal acting training. He wrote and participated in plays in college, he said, “but as you can tell, my range is pretty narrow.”

A unique feature of the “Totally Hip Video Book Reviewer” is that most of his episodes aren’t actually book reviews. Rather, they are commentaries on the book industry, which he despairingly notes is “rapidly growing smaller” along with the newspaper industry. “Most of them are just making fun of the newspaper or book industry,” he said.

Each episode is packed with witty asides and self-deprecation that lingers just long enough to catch your attention. In one, Charles is describing author Jay Parini’s “The Passages of H.M.,” a biographical novel about American writer Herman Meville, who produced the epic “Moby Dick.” Sharp-eyed viewers will note that behind Charles are copies of the CliffsNotes version of “Moby Dick,” and his computer screen displays a Wikipedia entry on the same subject.

In another episode, he notes that “a book only stays fresh for about three weeks” as he opens his refrigerator door and quickly retrieves one from dozens on the shelves inside.

In yet another episode, he is sitting with a book in an easy chair during the Christmas holidays, reflecting on “another fabulous season of illuminating book coverage.” Look closely and you’ll see he’s been absorbed in the Dr. Seuss’s “How the Grinch Stole Christmas.”

He uses some episodes to promote bogus book-related products. One opens with his wife, warm and comfortable in a Snuggy, struggling to hold a book. The “Totally Hip” review announces: “Now there’s the Bookly, the book with sleeves!” He appears in the new paper product “made from the pages of remaindered novels” and so practical that “you can do most anything while pretending to read.” And “you’ll never get stuck in the bathroom without toilet paper again” he says as video shows him in his Bookly sitting on the stool in anguished frustration after having just pulled the last square tissue from the roll of toilet paper.

A recent year-end episode ended with, “Thanks for making this year so far and fun.” The screen splits and a segment of The Post’s ill-fated “Dancing Bear” video appears. It’s slightly wicked, and Totally Hip.

By Andy Alexander  | January 28, 2011; 3:37 PM ET
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